As a substance some are calling “the new cigarette” becomes more widely accepted than ever, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina have some words of warning. Marijuana is more potent than in the past, they say, and there is plenty of research suggesting heavy use can take a heavy toll.
Clinical psychologist Lindsay Squeglia said brain imaging in young people with a history of pot use shows marijuana affects their white matter, which she called “the superhighway of the brain.” That may impact memory and decision-making. Research also suggests heavy marijuana use may lead to lower IQ and lung damage.
The makeup of marijuana is in the process of being altered as well, according to the co-chairman of the tobacco research program at Hollings Cancer Center. Michael Cummings said the changes raise concerns about how harmful marijuana may become in the future. “I see some of the companies that were involved in genetically bio-engineering tobacco to make it more addictive, they are doing the same bio-engineering of THC in marijuana plants.”
But isn’t marijuana good for treating some medical problems? Yes, say researchers. For example, studies suggest marijuana can help people going through chemotherapy feel less nauseous, and it may also help people with multiple sclerosis feel less muscle stiffness.
But child psychiatrist Kevin Gray, who does substance abuse research at MUSC, said people need to know the facts before lighting up. “We need to speak up in away that we don’t get drowned out and perceived as prohibitionists,” Gray said. “My position – I’m pretty open about it – is that marijuana is a very interesting substance that I think contains things that are potentially therapeutic. But on balance and on the whole, the way it’s being used by young people now, causes more harm than benefit.”
Young people who get addicted may have a really tough time quitting, Gray said. Established treatments work in some cases, but relapses are common even in people who really want to quit, he said. The good news: New options may be on the way, including an over-the-counter supplement called NAC that may help people in treatment stay clean.